The University Record, April 3, 2000

Home alone? New study shows what kids do after school

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

About 3.5 million American children between ages 5 and 12 spend some time home alone after school. But the average amount of time isn’t much—only about an hour a day, according to a U-M study presented in Chicago April 2 at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence.

The study of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 children was presented by Sandra L. Hofferth, a sociologist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Family and Child Well-being Research Network. It is based on data collected as part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by the ISR for more than 30 years.

For the study, Hofferth and research associate Zita Jankuniene analyzed 1997 data from time diaries detailing the activities of children ages 5 to 12, and from interviews with their parents, to discover what the lives of U.S. children are like from the time they get out of school until the time they go to bed.

They found that 73 percent of children go straight home from school, while only 11 percent go to child care, either in someone else’s home or in a formal child care center. Another 8 percent stay at school. That leaves about 8 percent of children who go somewhere else, including the mall, indoor or outdoor recreation facilities, or their parents’ work places.

The 19 percent of children who are in supervised after-school care, either in child care or at school, is much lower than the two-thirds of school-age children in the study whose mothers are employed. Many parents are able to arrange their schedules so that at least one parent is home at the end of the school day, either by working part-time or by adjusting work hours, according to the researchers.

Still, a sizeable proportion of children spend time alone. Overall, Hofferth and Jankuniene found that 26 percent of American children spend some time after school completely alone, including time spent getting from one place to another on their own. Only 14 percent spend time alone at home, and 2.5 percent spend time alone elsewhere. The average amount of time spent at home unsupervised by adults was just one hour, varying with age from 47 minutes for children ages 5 to 7 to one hour and 15 minutes for children ages 11 and 12.

After controlling for differences in maternal employment, the researchers found that the children of older mothers and mothers who had attended at least some college were more likely to be home unsupervised than children of mothers with a high school education or less.

They also found that children who lived in socially cohesive neighborhoods were more likely to take care of themselves for some time after school. These are neighborhoods in which parents consider it very likely that neighbors would do something if they saw someone breaking the law or saw their kids getting into trouble. Overall, 85 percent of the parents reported their neighbors were very likely to do this.

Children of higher income parents are less likely to spend time alone than children of the lowest-income parents, Hofferth found. “The ability to afford after-school programs,” she says, “may play an important role in parents’ considerations.”

But parenting patterns, neighborhood characteristics and children’s own personalities also are linked to the likelihood a child will spend some time at home without adult supervision. “More educated mothers may feel comfortable allowing children some autonomy at younger ages,” she says. “And children described as shy and withdrawn are much more likely to spend time home alone than children described as aggressive, suggesting that parents may feel less need to monitor their behavior closely.”

So what is the first thing children do when they get home from school? Hofferth and Jankuniene found that 27 percent eat; 19 percent engage in personal care, including washing, bathing, dressing, and “none of your business”; 15 percent watch television; 13 percent study; and 9 percent play.

How much time children spend on these activities yields a slightly different perspective on the after-school life of U.S. children. They spend the most time—100 minutes—watching television, compared with an average of 74 minutes playing, 60 minutes studying, 60 minutes in sports, 30 minutes doing household work, 30 minutes reading and 20 minutes in conversation.

“What children do depends largely upon where they go after school,” Hofferth says. “If they stay at school, they’re more likely to have adult supervision and participate in structured activities like sports and youth groups. They’re much less likely to watch TV, study or just read.”

An earlier report based on the same time diaries showed that children spend two more hours a day in school than they did in 1981. One of the consequences of spending less time at home is an increase in structured activities and a decline in free play, according to Hofferth. As the time children spend at home declines, reading for pleasure also is at great risk, she notes. “Children just don’t read for pleasure anywhere but at home,” she says.

The trade-off is that at home, children also are more likely to spend time alone. But while unsupervised after-school time may create the potential for problems, Hofferth points out that it also has potential benefits as well. “Spending a little time alone may not be bad, given the hectic, highly scheduled quality of contemporary family life,” Hofferth adds. “It gives children a chance to relax and do what they want, including just vegging out.”